Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Even if the Bucs ‘took a step back’ Thursday night, there was hope to be found in a burgeoning King-Keyshawn connection


WR Keyshawn Johnson is a can't-miss target for second-year QB Shaun King

Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy wouldn't want it sugarcoated, so it must be said upfront that the Buccaneers' offense struggled in Miami on Thursday night. In addition, while the team moved the ball effectively in the preseason opener against Washington, there were troubles getting it into the end zone.

Real concerns. Why, then, are we greeting Friday morning's team stat compilation with a smile? Consider these points:

· QB Shaun King, the second-year phenom who worries some observers because his resume boasts just seven career starts (including postseason), has thrown the ball very sharply, completing 19 of 24 passes in playing time that amounts to about 80% of a single game. That's a marvelous completion percentage of 7.79%. · King's yards per pass attempt, 7.79, is also quite good despite a long completion of just 31 yards. That indicates that the team is succeeding in hitting intermediate routes and that King's completion percentage is not just a product of safe dump-off passes. Those two numbers explain why King has a fine passer rating of 81.8, though it is dragged down by his lack of TD passes thus far. · A team's leading receiver in the preseason is often a second or third-string player getting lots of second-half playing time. In the Bucs' case, it's Pro Bowl acquisition Keyshawn Johnson, who has seven receptions for 87 yards in roughly the same amount of playing time as King. Of King's 19 completions, 37% have found their way into Johnson's hands. We assume we don't have to explain the importance of that figure.

Simply put, while the roster-rotating nature of the preseason, particularly early in August, makes it difficult to fully judge the effectiveness of certain players or units, it seems abundantly clear that King is going to make serious use of his newest weapon. That has to be wonderful news for Buc fans.

That's the view looking in, of course. On the inside, the feeling is that the offense has yet to fully come together, and surely that is so. "We're still a new group of guys that are just starting to come together," said King after Thursday's game. "No one is frustrated. Of course we're upset that we lost (to Miami), but we understand that these games don't count."

That is, the wins and losses don't add onto the season ledger. In terms of player and team evaluation, these games count plenty. Buccaneer fans stung by less fortuitous receiver acquisitions in the recent past are eager to see prolific production from Johnson. They're told he is a commodity the Bucs have rarely had: a big, tough, productive and complete receiver who can do it all. In just two games, Johnson has all but proven that.

Three plays illustrate the new dimensions Johnson adds to the Bucs' attack.

Against Washington, early in the first period, Johnson ran a short comeback route with perennial Pro Bowl CB Deion Sanders shadowing him tightly. Even though Sanders provided his usual blanket coverage, Johnson was able to use his 6-4 frame to wall the Redskin out from the play and take in a 13-yard pass from King. Johnson allowed the Bucs to use the whole field, even though Sanders' presence often compels teams to look the other way.

Early on against Miami on Thursday, King dropped back but failed to find an open man immediately. Buying time, King eventually saw Johnson cutting across the middle with CB Patrick Surtain on his hip. Under pressure, King threw in his direction but left it a little high and outside. Among the Bucs' receivers, perhaps only Johnson could have reached far enough to make this acrobatic catch, but he did so, nearly earning the team a first down.

In the second quarter, King threw again to Johnson, this one on a designed play that sent Johnson straight up the left sideline. Again, the Miami coverage was tight, but Johnson adjusted to the ball before CB Jerry Wilson could and, while sailing through the air at a 45-degree angle, managed to snatch the ball around Wilson.

So, yes, King's fine completion percentage has seen the benefits of Johnson's elasticity, but that's part of the plan, isn't it? Overall, King has moved in the pocket well (sacked just once), spread the ball around somewhat (seven different players have caught his passes) and generally made good decisions. His lone interception, against Miami, appeared to be the exception to that final point, but King, who threw downfield while running to his right, feels that was more of a lack of execution.

"He thought the receiver was open," said Dungy. "He just didn't get the ball to him."

King, famously even-keel like his head coach, was praised after the opener but had to face tougher questions after the Miami game. He appeared confident and unconcerned.

"I think I did okay," said King on Thursday night. "With the limited game plan, I think we did better in some areas that we needed to improve in and some areas we didn't. Of course, you hate to see the turnovers, especially when you are in the areas where you have to kick with a kicker like Gramatica."

Displeased with his team's mostly failed efforts to move the ball on Thursday night, Dungy said his team had taken a step back in its preseason progress. Yet he was confident the Bucs would get it turned around by the next contest.

"We have some good things going," said Dungy. "We are definitely showing some signs. We just have to do it consistently. We have to zero in on what we are doing and I think we will do that next week."

In King's case, it appears as if he has already zeroed in on his favorite target: #19. That's a welcome sight for Buccaneer fans.

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